Employees of Yellowstone concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts often tell visitors if you haven’t been to the world’s first national park in the winter, you haven’t truly experienced Yellowstone. The vast park that occupies the northwestern corner of Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho becomes a frost-covered wonderland during the winter months, and the travel experience is entirely different than during the summer season.
“Yellowstone National Park can feel like your own personal park in the winter,” said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts in Yellowstone. “There is nothing quite like hearing the howl of a distant wolf, cross-country skiing within sight of a slow-moving, frost-covered bison or being the solitary observer of an Old Faithful geyser eruption late on a winter afternoon.”
Two of the park’s nine lodges are open during the winter – the 97-room Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel located in the northern part of the park and 134-room Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins in the park’s interior. Travelers can reach Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel by car but must take oversnow transportation – a snowcoach or snowmobile – to reach the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge opened for the season Dec. 18, 2010 and will remain open through March 7, 2011, and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel opened Dec. 21, 2010 and closes March 6, 2011.
Since far fewer people visit the park in the winter than in the summer, much about the park’s winter season is not well-known. Hoeninghausen cited some little-known facts about Yellowstone in winter.
- The first motorized oversnow vehicles in the park were snow planes which were motorized cockpits with rear propellers but no wings. Developed by West Yellowstone, Mont. resident Walt Stuart, the “planes” marked the beginning of oversnow winter-season travel in Yellowstone. A later vehicle carried the pilot/driver and one passenger and was designed with skis, a closed cockpit, rear-mounted propeller and rudder. In 1949 three snow planes made 19 trips into the park transporting a total of 35 people.
- Snowcoaches have been providing winter-season transportation in Yellowstone National Park for 55 years. Xanterra operates a fleet of snowcoaches that provide transportation from the gateways of West Yellowstone (west entrance) and Flagg Ranch (southern entrance) and the northernmost in-park location at Mammoth Hot Springs. Xanterra also operates a number of snowcoach tours.
- Sometimes you can see your shadow on a moonless night. There is little artificial light in the park, and starlight shadows are present on nights when there is no moon but bright stars.
- Every winter, trumpeter swans travel from the Arctic to the relatively warm temperatures of Yellowstone. These elegant birds – the largest wild fowl in North America – often congregate in the Gallatin River where they can easily be seen by visitors traveling to or from the West Yellowstone, Mont. entrance.
- The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel has been hosting winter-season guests for 28 years. The main lodge section of today’s Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel was built as an annex to another hotel on the site – the National Hotel – 100 years ago. The remainder of the National Hotel was torn down, but the lodging section remains.
- Yellowstone National Park receives between 50 and 200 inches of snow each year with snowfall generally much higher in the interior of the park than at each of the park entrances.
- The National Park Service closes roads to wheeled vehicles the first Sunday in November and begins plowing roads in late April. The only road open year-round is from the north entrance at Mammoth to the northeastern entrance at Cooke City, Mont.
- Winter visitors are treated to the sight of “ghost trees” that look like they are covered in snow. In fact, the trees are covered in rime frost, which forms when extremely cold water droplets freeze almost instantly on a cold surface.
- Old Faithful Snow Lodge is only 12 years old, although its classic “parkitecture” style does not suggest it is so new. Construction of the lodge was prompted by increasing interest in winter travel to the park. The original Snow Lodge opened during the winter of 1971/72 and was a conversion from its initial purpose as the Old Faithful Campers Cabins service building.
- The park is a Nordic skier’s paradise, with miles of skier-tracked trails and trails groomed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Xanterra offers an array of scheduled ski drops at trailheads, guided tours and ski lessons and posts a daily update about trail status on its web site, http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/daily-trail-status-1688.html.
- The boilers that supply heat to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel are fueled by a mixture of diesel and used cooking oil.
- Ice-skating rinks and complimentary use of skates are offered at both lodges.
- The top-selling winter-season retail items include Yellowstone blankets made from recycled materials, hand-knitted hats made from recycled fibers, hooded fleece jackets made in the United States and jewelry made from recycled silver.
- This winter marks the 16th anniversary of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Winter is one of the best times of the year to view wolves in the wild.
Xanterra offers a variety of winter-season packages including Getaway Packages, Adventure Packages and Lodging & Learning Packages. Packages may be booked by phone by calling (1) 307-344-7311 or toll-free (1) 866-GEYSERLAND (1-866-439-7375). Complete tour details are also available at the web site www.YellowstoneNationalParkLodges.com. To subscribe to Xanterra’s monthly electronic newsletter offering timely news about the park visit http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/current-news-102.html.